Monday Runday: On Being an Athena

When I was a little girl, and even into my teens, I spent inordinate time thinking about this body part.

Body image stuff shows up in many different ways. Some people (most of them girls and women) obsess over the flat stomach, or the "thigh gap," a term that didn't even exist when I was younger, thank goodness. For whatever reason, the focus of my attention was on the hamstring tendon.

Do you have Visible Hamstring Tendon? I do not. I could feel it when I flexed my knee, but it has never been visible, no matter how much weight I lost, nor how fit I got. I am within normal BMI for my height, and arguably the healthiest I've ever been, and certainly the strongest. I run close to 1,000 miles a year while pursuing two other sports. I ran three half marathons within three months earlier this year, each one faster than the one before. But still, that stupid hamstring tendon remains buried under a thin but persistent layer of fat.

(If you say, "Why on earth would you care about that?" I guess you've never been plagued with body image issues. Congratulations.)

I've been thinking about VHT (a condition I just acronymed myself) as I prepare for this Sunday's Montclair Sprint Triathlon, my first triathlon of the summer. When I went to register for the race, I was given the option of registering in my gender and age group, or as an "Athena." I'd never run into this before, but a few races do it--a designation for people who weigh more than a certain amount. I'm not way over the line, but I'm definitely over it.

(By the way, the designation for the gents is called Clydesdale. Let's just say I'm really glad the women's category has a different name. A friend who loves horses insists that Clydesdales are beautiful, strong, graceful animals. Certainly. But God love her, I doubt my friend was ever the tallest and broadest girl in her grade. Clydesdale has way too much baggage.)

I went back and forth about whether to register as an Athena. I'm a confirmed mid-pack athlete, so the whole point of running has always been to compete with myself--to "beat yesterday." Why does it even matter what category I'm in? Would I actually be competitive against other Athenas? Possible, but unlikely. It also seems a little simplistic to lump all of the Athenas together, the 5'9'' ones like me with the 5'2'' ones.

If I'm honest, a part of me sees it as a bogus designation. That's the voice that says being overweight (or even fat) is a choice, a matter of willpower, even a moral failing. That voice isn't the loudest one--it's a minority voice, to be sure--but it's there, and I'm not sure it will ever be completely exorcised. Certainly not as long as our society beats that drum so insistently. Things are better culturally than they used to be, but fat is still seen as a personal defeat, rather than a complicated byproduct of yes, some choice, but also genetics, circumstance, economics, and privilege.

This is all on my mind as my kids begin a new swim season, their first in a new swim league. Reston does competition and team points differently than our former league. There are three divisions in which kids get sorted based on their times in different events. So for example, if an 8-year-old boy swims a 25-meter freestyle in less than 28 seconds, he's in division A. Between 28 and 37 seconds, division B. Slower than that, division C. There are points awarded for first, second and third place in each division.

I can hear the scoffers now. "The top three swimmers should get the points, full stop," they might say, and inevitably start pontificating about how everyone-gets-a-trophy is the downfall of American culture. I assume most of the people who think that won the genetic lottery, and probably have Visible Hamstring Tendon. But I'll tell you what I saw at Saturday's meet. I saw kids at all levels, who swam their hearts out, and were given the chance to contribute to the overall success of their team. How is that a bad thing?

So... did I register for the Athena category? Damn right I did.

Is it because I worked out my body image issues? No, not completely--though it stands to reason that someone who swims, bikes and runs with 165 pounds is doing more work (or at least, different work) than someone who does it with 120. And VHT is stupid, I get it.

No, what made the decision for me is this:

I love Athena. I always have.

My Facebook friends have been treated to a weekly Athena for the last month or so, as I remember how much I adore that character. Wisdom? Courage? Justice? Democracy? Heck, throw knitting and crafts in there too, she's got time on her hands.

Athena is a complete and utter badass:

Basically, any time things look really damn bad, your girlfriend is in the hands of a horrible monster, your family is held hostage by an evil king, and your only chance of salvation lies in being able to single-handedly kill a dragon made out of lava, and you’re just sitting there staring at the ground hopelessly thinking what the fuck do I do now, Athena is the goddess that materializes out of nowhere with a lava-dragon-slaying hand grenade, a winged horse, and a motherfucking ham sandwich and tells you to get your shit together, suck it up, and be a goddamn hero.  This goddess is legit, folks.

Some favorite Athenas. I call this gesture goddessplaining:

Check out this gun show:

And she has an owl! And I went to Rice!

In reading up on the Athena category, there are plenty of women who qualify for it but don't register as such. In triathlons, athletes get marked in Sharpie with their race number. Athenas get an additional A with that number, and some women feel self-conscious about being branded a big girl. I get it, and people should do what they feel comfortable with.

As for me, I'll wear the A proudly. There's no hiding this body of mine, and I don't want to. She wouldn't:

She's here to kick ass and chew gum, and they didn't have gum in ancient Greece.

UPDATE: Here's a recap of the race.